The Definition of Religion

Religious activity is a vital part of the human experience. It gives meaning and purpose to life, serves as a source of social stability and authority, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change. However, the definition of religion is controversial. It can be viewed as either a collection of beliefs or a set of activities that a person engages in to express his or her spirituality. Defining religion is important because it allows scholars and social scientists to study the phenomenon.

The debate on the definition of religion involves four main approaches: substantive, functional, verstehende, and formal. Substantive definitions, such as the one offered by Tylor (1871), define religion as a belief in spiritual beings. These beliefs are based on moral codes that teach us to choose right over wrong, good over evil, just over unjust, truth over lies, and so on.

These beliefs are not necessarily based on science or logic, but rather on personal experiences that individuals have had with their own deities. These are also known as “mystical” experiences. For many, these experiences are the reason they remain believers. In contrast, some have grown tired of their faith and have chosen to abandon it entirely.

Many social science writers recommend that researchers study a society before seeking to formulate a definition of religion (Harrison 1912; Weber 1922). In this way, they argue, a theory can be formed without the need to determine what is considered religious or not. This is recommended as a way of avoiding the danger of the definition becoming the driving force of research and determining its conclusions.

In addition, substantive definitions are sometimes thought to resist a certain ideological, passive image of humans. In contrast to the notion of a religious person as an active agent maintaining a particular viewpoint, functional definitions view religion as something that is beneficial to society.

On the other hand, some scholars argue that defining religion in terms of beliefs or even subjective states reflects Protestant bias and that the field needs to shift its focus toward the social impact of religiosity. In this view, a better understanding of the social dimensions of religion will reveal how religion can serve as a catalyst for positive social change and that it has not been relegated to a passive role in modern society.

The broader definition of religion is the voluntary subjection of man to the free, supernatural Being on whom he relies for aid and happiness, and in which he seeks friendship and perfection. It includes the belief that the Creator has given man a divine nature and purpose and that it is his duty to obey His will. This religion is cultivated through the practice of the virtues of faith, hope, and love and manifested in the performance of acts of homage. It exists in its highest perfection in heaven, where the angels and saints love, praise, and adore God and live in absolute conformity with His holy will.